As an observer at the Connectional Table dialogue and meeting in Chicago this week, I was cautiously hopeful that genuine dialogue would take place and that The United Methodist Church’s moral teaching on human sexuality would receive a fair hearing. Sadly, my hopes were dashed.
As the UM News Service reported, the dialogue involved a panel presentation from three scholars. Bishop Daniel Arichea was to represent how Scripture impacts our view of homosexuality. Dr. Mark Teasdale, professor of evangelism at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, was to represent how tradition impacts our view of homosexuality. And Dr. Pamela Lightsey, professor at Boston University School of Theology, was to represent how experience impacts our view of homosexuality. Each panelist made a brief presentation and then took questions and comments from the Connectional Table members, visitors, and those who watched the presentation online.
At no time during this dialogue did anyone advocate on behalf of the church’s teaching that sexual relationships outside of monogamous, heterosexual marriage are contrary to the will of God. Dr. Teasdale came the closest with his insightful analysis of the conflict between the Wesleyan tradition that emphasizes holiness in submission to the teachings of Scripture and the church, and the American tradition that emphasizes freedom, individual rights, and self-determination. But even Dr. Teasdale’s presentation did not directly advocate for the adoption of the Wesleyan value system. He simply took the scholarly approach of examining options.
The other two panelists, however, were in full advocacy mode. They called for the approval of same-sex marriage in the church by UM clergy and the ordination and appointment of self-avowed practicing homosexuals as UM clergy.
Bishop Arichea talked about his gay son and how that relationship has influenced his understanding of Scripture. He categorized the two perspectives on Scripture as 1) timeless truths that can influence our devotion to God, and 2) time-bound passages that must be seen in the light of contextual study and the insights of science. (I don’t have space to elaborate on how blatantly the bishop here misrepresents an evangelical understanding of Scripture.) He placed scriptural teaching about human sexuality in the second category, time-bound and culture-bound verses that have nothing to say to us today.
Dr. Lightsey testified to her experience as a proudly open lesbian, and an ordained woman of color. She likened the church’s teaching on homosexuality to the racism and sexism she reports she encountered in her Pentecostal upbringing. She stated, “Though Scripture is central, experience informs our reading of the Biblical text. Experience authenticates the truth of Scripture. Experience is key to understanding of God, Scripture, and human sexuality.” In other words, personal experience is the lens through which we read Scripture, which means that each person’s reading of Scripture is self-authenticating by virtue of their own unique experience. (Teasdale’s American value system could not have had a starker example than Lightsey’s comments.)
All of the questions or comments that were then put to the panel were either neutral or slanted toward changing the church’s position. Even though there were bishops in the room, none of them came to the defense of the church’s long held teachings on the matter. To the contrary, several pushed for scrapping them.
This dialogue was a showcase for what I have said before is wrong with the way dialogues on the issue of homosexuality are often practiced in our church. Far from being fair, they are one-sided presentations meant to sway people to endorse same-sex marriage and the ordination of openly gay clergy. To make matters worse, even the little that was said by Dr. Teasdale from a more traditionalist perspective was considered offensive by some. One of the observers from Love Prevails (a radical, pro-gay activist group) commented, “Violence has been done to GLBT people when saying our understanding of ministry is the result of American tradition.”
If pro-gay advocates find even the mere expression of the church’s traditional teachings as inherently “violent,” then there is no possibility for true dialogue. Instead, systemic power and threats are used to shut down and shut up those who would speak from a conservative perspective. Why then should evangelical and orthodox United Methodists trust a system in which they are unfairly treated and not fairly represented?
The coup de grace that killed trust was the action of the Connectional Table after the dialogue. The Connectional Table voted (approximately 28-4) to prepare legislation for General Conference 2016 to remove what it deems is “exclusionary language” in the Book of Discipline, and replace it with language calling for the “full inclusion” of GLBT people. The lopsided vote is absurdly out of sync with the votes following the holy conferencing at all recent General Conferences.
Although two more dialogue sessions are scheduled over the next ten months, the Connectional Table is unfortunately not even willing to give the appearance of fairness in considering this important issue. They have already committed to their preferred outcome before the dialogue process is even completed.
So why should the remaining two dialogues be held? One member of the Connectional Table favored continuing the dialogues with this rationale, “We need to try to get everyone with us to have a majority at General Conference.” In other words, the dialogues are merely a political tool to push the Connectional Table’s pre-ordained outcome: the church’s teaching must be changed! It is their effort, funded by apportionment dollars, to promote the acceptance of homosexuality among the broader audience in our church that they are reaching through live-streaming the dialogues and the accompanying news stories.
The impact of a small group of pro-gay activists willing to disrupt church meetings should not be underestimated. A handful of vocal activists from Amy DeLong’s “Love Prevails” group were present and fully participated in the Connectional Table dialogue process. The fact that the CT had this particular dialogue at all was because these activists disrupted the CT’s November meeting by singing loudly as it attempted to conduct business. After a three-hour disruption, the Love Prevails activists were invited to join an impromptu discussion of their grievances.
As if that were not enough, the CT committed to form a human sexuality task force to lead the three dialogues that began this week. This is a bizarre way to conduct the church’s business. Spend hours of time, talent and dollars preparing an agenda for a meeting, but then throw it out the window when just a handful of vocal activists bully their way into the meeting.
At this week’s session, Love Prevails activists were standing among the CT members during the dialogue and participated freely in the question and comment time. Arguably, the motion to recommend changing the church’s teaching would not have happened, except that one of the Love Prevails activists goaded the CT with an impassioned speech.
Unfortunately, the Connectional Table catered to this bullying and allowed itself to be manipulated by a tiny but very vocal and committed minority within the church. This is not how spiritual decisions in the church are supposed to be made. Again, it is hard for us to trust leaders who are unwilling to stand up to this kind of blatant manipulation and maintain a decision-making process that has spiritual integrity.
In the end, the actions and perspectives of the Connectional Table are irresponsible and unrepresentative of the vast majority of United Methodist members around the globe. The members of the CT seem to be oblivious to the fact that their approach to spiritual leadership is causing the loss of trust that they themselves acknowledged during the meeting. Why should the rank and file membership trust a leadership body that does not speak for them?
The momentum toward irreconcilable division grows ever stronger.